Schmidt: Ignatius, Examen

Guest Writer Frederick W. Schmidt

“The Examen builds on the insight that it’s easier to see God in retrospect rather than in the moment.” —James Martin in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, 2010), p. 97.

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“Rummaging for God” in our lives.

One of the central practices in Jesuit devotion—the one that Ignatius of Loyola considered indispensable—was the prayer of Examen. Ignatius felt that the key to spiritual growth was to cultivate an awareness of when and where God had been present for us in the course of the day. It was so important, in fact, that he urged his followers to do the Examen even if it cost them the little time that they might have for prayer.

One writer calls this “rummaging for God” in our lives. Rummaging is a wonderful, commonplace activity we have all often resorted to when we have lost something: car keys, phones, and umbrellas being among my personal favorites over the years.

The Examen is a practice that tells us something important about the spiritual life: Spiritual practice is preeminently about cultivating a sense of God’s presence. It isn’t about devotional piety or about the number of hours we spend in overtly religious activity. It isn’t an anxious, endless effort to earn the love of God. The spiritual life is about cultivating an habitual awareness of God’s presence that shapes and informs our lives.

Ignatius recommends two questions:

One: What were the events in your life today—the moments, conversations, and choices—that drew you closer to God and to others in love?

Two: What were the events in your life today—the moments, conversations, and choices—that drove you away from God and others?

The answers to those simple questions invite us to evaluate our lives from a spiritual center. They are not about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good. Some things—such as addiction—feel good at first, but they invariably isolate us from God and others; and, by contrast, some things that don’t feel good, like asking for forgiveness, can actually draw us closer to God and to those around us.

Instead these questions raise our awareness of the ways in which patterns, habits, and choices shape our lives and how, armed with that knowledge, we can learn to be more readily available both to God and to others.

Rummaging around in our lives for God can be the source of inspiration, encouragement, strength, gratitude, and a renewed sense of spiritual purpose. That’s not a bad result for an activity that usually leads to the discovery of dust bunnies and lost umbrellas.

—The Rev’d Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt.